You can't escape words like "classic" when you're talking about John Ford. The director of nearly 12 dozen films — including such Westerns as The Searchers, Stagecoach and How the West Was Won — is, according to Martin Scorsese, "the essence of classical American cinema." And Steven Spielberg agrees.

"John Ford's movies were a collection of rituals," offers Spielberg, adding that those rituals include Irish and Native American ones, as well as American folk rituals. In fact, Ford's films tend to possess a ritualistic quality from start to finish. Each is like a pageant designed to preserve a legend.

Scorsese and Spielberg make their telling remarks in Directed by John Ford, a 1971 documentary from Peter Bogdanovich that has recently been updated. The new version will premiere Nov. 7 on Turner Classic Movies as part of the network's monthlong celebration of Ford.

On Tuesdays throughout November, TCM will present 22 of Ford's films plus that documentary, which includes interviews with such actors as John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Maureen O'Hara, James Stewart and Harry Carey Jr., all of whom worked with Ford. In addition to Scorsese and Spielberg, such directors as Clint Eastwood and Walter Hill are represented, as well as Ford himself.

As you watch Directed by John Ford, you come to realize that no filmmaker has done more to define the image of the American West that all of us carry around in our heads and our hearts. And whether he was making Westerns, biopics (Young Mr. Lincoln) or message movies (The Grapes of Wrath), Ford painted with bold strokes. It makes sense that the setting most closely associated with him is Monument Valley, that vast vista on the Arizona-Utah border where he shot nine of his movies.

TCM, 8 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 7

Which is not to say that Ford lacked finesse. Scorsese talks about "the beauty of his compositions" and practically everyone in the documentary agrees that his storytelling technique was brilliant. Hill, among others, emphasizes the complexity of his staging.

"Nobody ever staged better," says Hill, who adds, "but at the same time, it seems organic."

Born John Martin Feeney in 1895, Ford died in 1973. Along the way he managed (as the documentary notes) to have some sort of affair with Katharine Hepburn. He also won numerous awards, including Oscars for directing The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley, The Informer and The Quiet Man.

But among movie-centrics, Ford's old-school brand of Americana has always had its detractors as well as its fans. Except for The Searchers, film historian David Thomson has little use for Ford's work.

"I find his Westerns pictorial, tediously rowdy, and based on a cavalier treatment of American history," he complains in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. "No one has done so much to invalidate the Western as a form."

Thomson is harsh but he does have a point: There is something brusque and a bit too insistently masculine about Ford's films. (Ford would, undoubtedly, have been horrified by Brokeback Mountain.) This may, in fact, be part of what we mean when we refer to his work as "classic." Like the Old West itself, the films of John Ford belong to another time.

More by J.B. Mitchell


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